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The strictures of the equal protection clause are invoked when the state engages in invidious discrimination. However, the Fourteenth Amendment, erects no shield against merely private conduct, however discriminatory or wrongful. Private discrimination may violate equal protection of the law when accompanied by state participation in, facilitation of, and, in some cases, acquiescence in the discrimination. Although there is no conclusive test to determine when state involvement in private discrimination will violate the Fourteenth Amendment, the general standard that has evolved is whether the conduct allegedly causing the deprivation of a federal right is fairly attributable to the state. Therefore, it is a question of state responsibility and only by sifting facts and weighing circumstances can the involvement of the state in private conduct be attributed its true significance.
The present case involved two different cases, wherein the trial court permitted the administration of private charitable trusts according to the testators’ intent to finance the education of male students and not female students. In Matter of Wilson, article eleven of Clark W. Wilson’s will provided that the residuary of his estate be held in trust and that the income be applied to defray the education and other expenses of the first year at college of five young men who shall have graduated from the Canastota High School. Wilson died in 1969, and for the next 11 years, the Wilson Trust was administered according to its terms. In early 1981, the Civil Rights Office of the United States Department of Education received a complaint alleging that the superintendent's acts in connection with the Wilson Trust violated title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibited gender discrimination in Federally financed education programs. The Surrogate’s Court held that the school superintendent’s cooperation with the trustee violated no Federal statute or regulation prohibiting sexual discrimination, nor did it implicate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. A unanimous Appellate Division modified the Surrogate's decree. The court affirmed the Surrogate's finding that the testator intended the trust to benefit male students only and, noting that the school was under no legal obligation to provide the names of qualified male candidates, found "administration of the trust according to its literal terms is impossible." The court then exercised its cy pres power to reform the trust by striking the clause in the will providing for the school superintendent's certification of the names of qualified candidates for scholarship.
In Matter of Johnson, Edwin Irving Johnson left his residuary estate in trust. Article six of the will provided that the income of the trust was to be used and applied each year for scholarships or grants for bright and deserving young men. Johnson died in 1978. In accordance with the terms of the trust, the board of education, acting as trustee, announced that applications from male students would be accepted. Before any scholarships were awarded, however, the National Organization for Women, filed a complaint with the Civil Rights Office of the United States Department of Education, alleging that the high school district's involvement in the Johnson Trust constituted illegal gender-based discrimination. The Surrogate held that the testator's primary intent to benefit "deserving young men" would be most closely effected by replacing the school district with a private trustee. The Appellate Division reversed, holding that under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, a court cannot reform a trust that, by its own terms, would deny equal protection of law.
Was the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment violated when a court permitted the administration of private charitable trusts according to the testators’ intent to finance the education of male students and not female students?
The court concluded that when the trial court applied a trust law that neither encouraged, affirmatively promoted, or compelled private discrimination, but allowed the parties to engage in private selection in the bequest of their property, that choice was neither attributable to the state or subject to the Fourteenth Amendment. Although the restrictions in the trusts at issue arguably ran contrary to public efforts promoting equality of opportunity for women, that did not justify imposing a per se rule that gender restrictions in private charitable trusts violated public policy. The Fourteenth Amendment did not require the state to exercise the full extent of its power to eradicate private discrimination. It was only when the state itself discriminated, compelled another to discriminate, or allowed another to assume one of its functions and discriminate, that such discrimination was implicated. Accordingly, the order in the first appeal was affirmed; however, the order in the second appeal was reversed.